Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer

Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It“There is some place I have not yet been to, some place of which every other place has been no more than a premonition. But how will I know if I’m there? If I can’t answer that question, then for all I know, I could be there already.”

In this uniquely offbeat collection of travel essays, Geoff Dyer proves the old adage that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you. Dyer spends days and weeks and months in places as varied as New Orleans, Rome, Cambodia, Miami, Amsterdam, Libya, Detroit, Thailand and Black Rock City, pondering the nature of happiness and the strange dilations of time while doing drugs and freely quoting Auden and Rilke.

Dyer writes with a sharply observant eye for detail and a talent for apt and startling metaphor, but these are far from your typical travel stories. The scenes he describes are by turns grimly funny and gripped by existential despair. He often travels with a girlfriend, or finds a fleeting connection during his sojourns, but his loneliness and recurrent yearning for oblivion come to the fore in his solo trips, in a dismal hotel in Khoms, Libya or at an electronic music festival surrounded by the ruins of Detroit.

His fascination with ruins mirrors his increasing certainty that he is little more than a ruin himself. As he claims at a more financially successful friend’s birthday party in Amsterdam, “Once you turn forty you realize that life is there to be wasted.” (Here I have to state that, having recently turned forty myself, I’ve come to exactly the opposite conclusion: that there is absolutely no time to waste.)

That Dyer actually completed this book and is in fact a prolific and apparently successful author calls into question his persona in these accounts of lassitude and inertia; clearly he has another side to his character, one who may not be bothered to do yoga but can at least churn out some incisive and unusual travel pieces when necessary.

I bought this book mainly for the clever title. I too have sort of wished I’d been doing yoga for years, until I moved to India and realized if it wasn’t going to happen here it was never going to happen. Dyer’s accounts of his travels fascinated me in large part because they are so completely different from my own, even though I’ve logged quite a few miles myself in the past 25 years. Yet there was still something that resonated with me in his restlessness, even if my trips never included dropping acid or roaming stoned through the streets of Amsterdam.

Genre: Travel as personal memoir

Read it if: You’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a middle-aged British man doing drugs in exotic locales while sardonically pondering the nature of time and existence.

Skip it if: You like travel essays for their positive, glowing descriptions of the places the author visited.

Movie-worthy: Hmm. The end result would probably be something like Woody Allen remaking The Hangover starring Simon Pegg.

Writing More, Reading Less

It’s not always the case that when I’m writing more, my reading drops off a cliff, but it does happen. Right now I’m at the very beginning of what I hope will be a novel-worthy story and I can’t easily step back and focus on any other fictional worlds during my limited available writing hours.

Happier at HomeIn theory I’m reading Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. Unfortunately, I can only read for a few brief pages before something annoys me and I put the book down. It reminds me of Eat, Pray, Love in the sense that, while I would probably be delighted to chat with the author in real life, being in her head is exhausting. I’m just too different in my approach to life and happiness. Occasionally something will resonate–I like the idea of creating little shrines of meaningful decorative objects around your home–but mostly I cringe.

The funny thing is, I am sure that Gretchen Rubin would want me to stop reading the book; after all, it’s not contributing to my happiness. On the other hand, one of her Splendid Truths is that happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy, i.e. short term pain can lead to longer term happiness. Unfortunately, just as she advises herself to “Be Gretchen,” I have little choice but to “Be Erin.” And that means reading the book to the very last page even if it kills me.

What is the WhatAt night, I’ve just started reading What Is the What by Dave Eggers, a fictionalized but essentially true account of a child’s struggle to survive in war torn Sudan and his subsequent immigration to the U.S. My sister asked me to read this book with her so we could discuss it, a mini-book club of two, so how could I refuse? The story is immediately gripping and really, really brutal. I’m reading just a bit at a time after the kids fall asleep, but it’s going to take me a while. It’s just too painful to read quickly.

And finally, I summoned the willpower to crack open the uncorrected proof of my first “novel” and start marking it up. It’s liberating to just slash and scribble and make notes in the margins, and as usual, the writing isn’t as bad as I feared (although I question my ability to be objective; somehow I simultaneously believe it is absolutely worthless drivel and almost somewhat slightly entertaining.)

The LuminariesI’m sure balance will be restored to my reading soon. For one thing, I have to finish The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s massive Booker Prize-winning tome, in time for book club the first week of February. In the meantime, I’m going to write without worrying too much about whether it’s any good, whether it serves any purpose, whether it is the most sensible and justifiable use of my time. Right now it’s really the only thing I want to do.

The Chennai Lit for Life Festival

Lit for Life logoThis weekend, Chennai welcomed authors from all over India and beyond for a three day literature festival. Free and open to the public, Lit for Life was a fantastic opportunity to sit in on some fascinating conversations between authors and to celebrate a shared love for literature.

The White TigerThe festival kicked off with a chat between Aravind Adiga, Booker Prize winning author of The White Tiger, and his agent, David Godwin. Adiga shared the inspiration for The White Tiger, recalling the time he went to visit a friend in Delhi and saw the friend’s driver sitting nearby reading a magazine entitled “Murder” in Hindi. He asked the driver about the magazine and learned that it was very popular among drivers, and that it contained stories about drivers who murder their employers. In the stories, the murderous drivers are always caught; Adiga was intrigued by the idea that these tales offered some form of catharsis, and he wondered what social mechanisms prevented this type of crime from actually happening, and under what circumstances those mechanisms would fail.

HitchedEqually interesting for completely different reasons was a panel entitled “Rough Passage: The Coming of Age of the New Indian Woman.” The five female authors in discussion seemed to agree that women had come a long way in India, but they also acknowledged that their experiences differed significantly from those of many women here, who don’t often have the educational and career prospects the panelists enjoyed.

losing-my-virginity-and-other-dumb-ideasAfter the panel was over, I stopped by the festival’s book stall and picked up a few titles by these authors. Two might best be described as chick lit:¬†Losing My Virginity and Other Mistakes by Madhuri Banerjee and What Would You Do to Save the World? by Ira Trivedi. The third,¬†Hitched: the Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage by Nandini Krishnan, is a non-fiction book based on interviews with young Indians about arranged marriage. I haven’t cracked them open yet, but based on the panel discussion, I suspect these books will offer some interesting insights into how the “modern woman” in India views her role and her world.

Another standout panel included popular authors Ashwin Sanghi (The Krishna Key) and Ravi Subramaniam (The Bankster) and critically acclaimed author Anita Nair (Ladies’ Coupe) in an often funny and sometimes contentious discussion about the merits of self-promotion and the novel as product. The two commercial authors talked about the ways that they market their novels and engage with their readership, while Anita Nair focuses on the creative act of writing and leaves the rest to her publisher. The quick thinking moderator, Naresh Fernandes, got some of the biggest applause lines of the talk. When an audience member asked “What is the point of this discussion? Anita Nair and those two are clearly on parallel tracks and will never meet,” Fernandes replied that train tracks are also two parallel tracks that never meet, and yet they get you somewhere. When another audience member asked for advice on how to “make waves as an author,” referring to the title of the panel, Fernandes said to “write the damn thing.” Truer words.

HarvestA particular highlight of the festival was hearing Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) chat with Jim Crace (Quarantine, Harvest) about the art of the literary novel. Their temperaments, philosophies and approaches to writing are clearly quite different, but they expressed mutual admiration and offered some insights into what constitutes a literary novel. Crace posited that a literary novel raises questions but refuses to deliver easy answers. Verghese suggested that a literary novel requires equal participation, and effort, from the reader; the author provides the words, and the reader provides the imagination.

The Bone SeasonI was also delighted to hear Samantha Shannon talk about her book The Bone Season as part of a panel on “Tall Tales: Fantastical Stories from the East and West,” along with Ashwin Singhi. I knew she was young, but wow, is she young! I finished reading her novel over the weekend. It was definitely a darkly entertaining read, the kind of world that hooks you in and leaves you feeling let down when you remember the book is over and you can’t return to it until there’s a sequel.

To a Mountain in TibetThe most powerful and affecting presentation of the festival, at least for me, was given by travel writer Colin Thubron. He spoke about the journey to Tibet that resulted in his most recent, and most personal, book, To a Mountain in Tibet. Following the death of his mother, his last living family member, Thubron felt the need to undertake a “bleak pilgramage” to Mount Kailash, a stark and isolated peak near the Himalayas that is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. His description of this trip was exquisitely lyrical, and I immediately added his book to my to-be-read list.

This weekend was such an extraordinary treat for me as a reader and would-be writer. Although not on the same grand scale as the Jaipur Literature Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend last year, Lit for Life is a gift to the residents of Chennai, and judging by the turnout, one they clearly appreciate.

Next stop: the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in August!

New Year’s Resolutions (Better Late Than Never)

Have a Fun!

Happy New Year! Have a Fun!

New Year’s Day is a terrible time to implement any new year’s resolutions, at least for me. The kids are still home from school, and the temptation to laze around eating Christmas goodies and watching old movies is strong. Not the ideal context for self-improvement. In previous years, I opted for ridiculous resolutions like “watch more TV” or “drink more beer,” setting the bar as low as possible.

This year, however, I decided to take the whole resolution thing seriously and wait until January 6, when school was officially back in session, before attempting any self-improvement. As luck would have it, I came down with a nasty cold over the weekend and spent most of January 6 on the couch watching the first season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD instead. (I’m not complaining, by the way: I love that show.)

But this morning I woke up feeling 100% better, sent the kids off on the school bus and knew: today was the day. So, in no particular order, here are my new year’s resolutions for (the rest of) 2014.

  • Buy No Physical Books
    On LookingBelieve it or not, this will be by far the hardest resolution for me to keep. But keep it I must. We are leaving India at the end of the summer and most of our belongings will go into temporary storage while we spend a year in Washington, D.C. I have so many unread books, and so little time left, it would be completely insane to buy any more. So, for the record, my last book purchase for 2014 is On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz. I had read it about it on the Brainpickings¬†best of 2013 list, and couldn’t resist buying it when I spotted it randomly on the shelf at a local bookstore.
  • Write Every Day
    When it’s going well, writing feels so incredibly easy. And then, for whatever reason, I go a few days (or, gulp, weeks) without putting fingers to keyboard and it suddenly becomes incredibly hard. As in, I can’t bear to even look at what I’ve already written in order to finish it. And I can’t start anything new because the burden of three manuscripts in various stages of completion hang over my head like cartoon pianos. (See, that’s a terrible simile! Just awful!) Anyway, the only way to get back into the flow is to write, every day, until it’s fun again. So that’s what I’m going to do.
  • Exercise Every Day
    Sure, everyone puts this on their list, but I made this my goal several months ago and apart from various derailments due to vacation, illness, etc. I’ve kept to it fairly well. I found an exercise DVD that’s fun and not boring. I read somewhere that daily exercise was the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant, and I certainly have felt more energetic because of it. That’s a half hour a day well spent. I’ve also come to realize that having a clearly established routine is essential. Including exercise and writing as equally important parts of my daily schedule makes it easier to keep up with both.

That’s it. Three resolutions. Not to sound too Oprah, but I’m hoping to arrive at our next destination as my best possible self, with toned muscles, a finished novel and empty bookshelves just waiting to be filled.

Happy New Year!